At 74, Otto Preminger no longer has to raise his voice. Most places he goes still echo from some previous visit.
He is, of course, the original auto-cratic film director, the bullet-headed Viennese-with-monocle, the bane of trembling stars, a Darryl F. Zanuck team player who struck out on his own in 1951. He discovered Jean Seberg, fired Lana Turner, and single-handedly drove Tom Tryon from the screen to the typewriter.
He sent John Wayne off to war in "In Harm's Way," made Paul Newman an honorary Israeli in "Exodus," and sent Frank Sinatra to hell and back in "The Man With the Golden Arm."
Along the way he also broke the Hollywood blacklist, took on the Catholic Legion of Decency, and hauled the prudish Motion Picture Code twice before the Supreme Court. "The Human Factor," adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from Graham Greene's novel, is his 34th film. It opens in Washington next week.
"Max," Preminger growled yesterday morning, his Austrian accent clicking like a soldier's heels. "I ordered coffee. The coffee is not here. cI am required to wait. Are you not competent even to order coffee?"
Max Miller, a venerable executive of United Artists, leaped several feet into the air, remaining there like Nijinsky while apologies and explanations rained down.
"Max, Max, Max, my old friend," Preminger said. "It's a joke, Max. Where's your sense of humor? I'm only kidding."
Miller lowered himself back into his chair warily. He was still hearing the old echoes.
"I read 'The Human Factor' before it was printed, and I knew right away I wanted to make a movie," Preminger said. "Graham Greene and I are old friends, so my first thought was that he should do the screenplay. But Graham said he was too close to it. He's not well, I don't think. He's just had his spleen removed. I must call him tomorrow.
"But this fellow Tom Stoppard is marvelous. I saw his play, 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,' in London where it ran three years. That's the one with a full symphony orchestra on stage. It played in Washington, but only for a few days. Roger Stevens is a rich man -- but rich men are stingy, and he wouldn't pay for the orchestra for more than that."
Preminger smiled, his watery blue eyes holding a direct gaze under the memorable arched eyebrows and a cranium that looms over them like the observatory at Mt. Palomar.
"But I'm already thinking about my next project. "It's an original screenplay by J.P. Miller called 'Four Wars for Peace,' and it's about the Israeli wars. I'm having lunch with Menachem Begin next week.
"What do you think of the United Nations standing by for this hostage business in Iran," he said, interrupting himself. "You know, the head of the U.N. is a Viennese like myself. The trouble is, he's an idiot and he's a weakling."
Preminger still had not raised his voice.
"Yelling?" he repeated. "People say I have a reputation for yelling? For strong opinions? Well. I think that got started because I played a few Nazis. I played one for Clare Boothe when I directed her play 'Margin for Error,' and for Billy Wilder in 'Stalag 17.' I shaved my head, because the hair grows only around the edges, and not on top. Also, my accent is natural."
Preminger, who lives in an elegant New York townhouse with his wife, costume designer Hope Bryce, has a sense of humor about his own image -- although his legendary directing technique did not always cause amusement in others.
When he was making "Anatomy of a Murder," in 1958, Lana Turner had been cast as the female star. She was to play the part of a second lieutenant's wife, and her wardrobe was to include a pair of ready-to-wear slacks. But Lana Turner wore only slacks by the fashionalbe designer Jean Louis, her agent pointed out. Turner would not yield. Preminger would not yield. He cast Lee Remick in the role instead. Remick wore the slacks, and became a star.
"He did yell a lot," said Ring Lardner Jr., who worked with Preminger on several scripts, including "Forever Amber" of 1947. "I'm not sure it really worked very well, at least not with actors. What would happen was, when an actor got it wrong, Otto couldn't be gentle. He couldn't see that the actor was having problems.
"He'd start off, right there in front of everyone on the stage, saying something like -- 'You aren't trying. I'm giving you direction, and you're not listening to me. Why aren't you paying attention!' And soon he'd be shouting.'WHY ARE YOU BEING TERRIBLE AND TRYING TO RUIN MY PICTURE!'
"Otto, you know, single-handedly turned Tom Tryon into a novelist. By the time they'd finished shooting "The Cardinal,' Tryon was a nervous wreck."
"Tom Tryon needed a lot of help on that picture," Preminger confirmed. "Very much help. He didn't have that much, er, experience, and it was hard for him. But he's now a successful writer, you know." Set Scenes & Controversies
Preminger worked with all kinds of performers, from the young George C. Scott, whom he signed away from Shakespeare in Central Park, to Kim Novak (terribly nervous), and he often cast amateurs or newcomers -- at his peril.
"When I did 'The Man With the Golden Arm' in 1955, Frank Sinatra was just making his comeback. He wasn't a professional actor, but he was very good, and reliable and I loved him. I had paid big money -- $100,000 in those days -- for Kim Novak, who had made two movies for Columbia. What I didn't know was that Kim Novak's movies there had each been dubbed afterwards, because she could never get the lines right.
"So we're on the set, doing 30 or 40 takes of each scene. I didn't want to dub. Sinatra went through all the takes, just like a pro, because Novak was so nervous. She just had no self-confidence at all.
"You know how we got Jean Seberg for 'St. Joan?' We had a worldwide talent search, and she was one of 18,000 people who applied. She was 17 years old."
Ten years later, Preminger recalled in his autobiography, he was accosted by a stage mother still brooding because her own daughter had been passed over in favor of Seberg. "You didn't even recognize talent when you saw it!" complained Barbra Streisand's mother.
"I signed Judge Joseph Welch to play the part of the judge in 'Anatomy of a Murder,'" Preminger said proudly. "He was the brave man of the Army-McCarthy hearings -- the one who told McCarthy, 'Have you no sense of decency, sir?' -- and he was wonderful.He agreed to read the script, and then I said, will you do it? 'But of course!' he said."
For all his glowering and bullying, Preminger's career has been crisscrossed with momentous challenges and large issues.
He is generally acknowledged as the man who finally erased the infamous Hollywood blacklist. It began in 1947, when leading screenwriters were called to Congress to testify about suspected communist ties and activities. Ten writers actually went to jail, and eventually more than 400 persons found themselves unemployable under their own names in Hollywood.
"I had absolutely no tendency toward communism myself," Preminger said yesterday. "But many of my friends were caught up in the mess. And it went on for a long time. As a practical matter, people still worked -- but not under their own names, and the studios liked that fine. They didn't have to pay big money -- Dalton Trumbo would do a script for $1,500, because he had to eat.
"The blacklist was still in 1960, when Trumbo wrote the screenplay for 'Exodus' for me. After he finished it, I said, 'Dalton, we'll use your name this time.'
"So I went to Arthur Krim, who was the studio head, and told him what I was going to do. Don't be shocked, I told him, when you read tomorrow's paper. He just said, 'Otto, you have autonomy, you have the movie. Just don't get me involved in the decision.'"
Trumbo had also written "Spartacus" that year, for Kirk Douglas. On the strength of Preminger's move, Douglas was also able to list Trumbo's name on the "Spartacus" credits.
"Otto had a great deal to do with ending all that," said Lardner, who like Trumbo had gone to jail. "He hired me two years later. When the American Legion complained, he told them they didn't have to go to any movies I worked on."
Preminger's high-profile, argumentative stance generated a great deal of publicity -- much of it adverse. He seemed not to want to rock the boat so much as to sink it -- and several times he did.
"The Cardinal" upset the Church, but was a box-office hit anyway. (Cardinal Spellman had instructed all his bishops not to cooperate with the filming).
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Code Administration, better known as the Hays Office (after its first chairman, Will H. Hays), was a powerful arbiter of the social comment allowable in films after World War II.
When the Hays Office tried to get Preminger to strike the word "virgin" from "The Moon Is Blue," he fought them to the Supreme Court, and won. Three years later, when the same office opposed the disturbing portrayal of drug addition in "The Man With the Golden Arm," the Supreme Court eventually decided again in Preminger's favor.
One he did not win was a suit against a network in which he contended that his movies should not be interrupted at random by commercials. Instead, he proposed clusters of ads at the beginning and end, and during one intermission. "We almost won it," he said wistfully. "The decision was very close. Think -- what if we had?"
Much of the combat of the old days is over now, and perhaps Preminger, too, sometimes listens to some of his own echoes.
The New York Times favorably reviewed "The Human Factor," which he observes "is something unusual for newspaper reviews of my films. Usually you get Rex Reed, who hates me, on the attack -- and a headline that says 'Preminger Pathetic,' or something."
Several of his most recent films -- "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon"; "Such Good Friends"; and "Rosebud" -- have not been big moneymakers, and in fact, Preminger found himself with financial challenges in producing his Graham Greene story.
"I'll tell you what happened," he said. "I had three backers who were going to finance the film. They were getting the money from an Arab, and the Arab backed out, and they backed out. I had already hired some actors, and I didn't want to stop.
"I owned this beautiful house in the south of France, which I'd worked on for four years, and I sold that and put the money into the picture. Also, I sold two of my pictures -- two Matisses. I think the movie will make money, and then I'll buy the Matisses back, and two more besides." Affluence & Batman
All in all, Preminger says, money has never overwhelmed him, despite a career spent riding about in studio limousines like the block-long gray Cadillac -- complete with bar, television, stereo and aft-compartment sunroof -- that delivered him from destination to destination yesterday in the nation's capital.
"Am I rich?" said Preminger in his suite at the Sheraton-Carlton. "Well, I live comfortably enough. I have a townhouse in Manhattan with six floors, and the real-estate agents are always asking me if I'm ready to sell. I put some money in the bank each year so I can pay my kids' tuition. But I'm not what's-his-name -- the fat Texan."
"Bunker Hunt," said Max Miller, refilling the cups from the triumphant supply of coffee long since delivered tothe room.
"Yes, Hunt," said Preminger. "It never occurred to me to become Bunker Hunt, or buy silver, or make billions. A guy like that, to me, he's like a television comedy show."
Did he say college tuition?
"Yes, that's right. I have a son by Gypsy Rose Lee, he's a writer. And I have my twins, Victoria and Mark, who are both 19." The twins are the delight of Otto and Hope.
"I tell you, so different are these two children, even though they're twins. It's a wonderful thing. Victoria is blond and she's very tough and has strong opinions. She's a student at Smith College, and she has a room right across the hall from where Hope lived when she went there.
"And Mark, he's studying to be a doctor -- he's in pre-med at Johns Hopkins. He's got brown hair, and he's soft, and he gives in -- a real nice guy. A great doctor."
Otto Preminger, a tough guy from way back, prides himself on detachment. Nowadays he often forgets -- perhaps on purpose, perhaps because his life has been longer than his memory -- the details of past squabbles. The time that Hollywood agent Irving Lazar broke a cocktail glass over his head. The kind of car he drove in Hollywood. Whether Hemingway ever really said, after Zanuck bowdlerized a Hemingway story for the screen, "They should have called it 'The Snows of Darryl F. Zanuck.'"
But he has not forgotten Batman.
"Mark and Victoria were little children," he said. "Every time it was on, they had to watch Batman on TV. So I ran into the producer one day, and I said, 'Please -- put me on the show. I'll work for free.' And you know, I'd given up acting years before.
"They cast me as a funny bad guy. His name was Mr. Freeze. I made the show but I didn't tell anybody.
"The night it was on, I snuck into my children's room, it was dark, and I sat down with them while Batman came on. They watched -- they didn't know anything. Pretty soon Mr. Freeze came on the screen, and their eyes got real big and wide, and they both turned around and looked up at me.